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TEST DRIVE: 2021 BMW iX3 Electric SUV

The world is changing at a faster pace than ever. Most of the credit goes to the rapid tech advancements in all fields. At the same time, this change doesn’t seem to happen fast enough in some industries. The automotive world is one of them. Even though there were some pioneers, including the BMW Group. In 2011, the Bavarians founded the BMW i division, and this was supposed to be the specialist arm of the Bavarians, focused solely on electric drivetrains and alternatives to internal combustion engines.

BMW i – Born In 2011

The BMW i engineers started cranking out new technologies at a fast pace. One clear example in this regard is the BMW i3, their flagship EV, if you will. Even eight years later, the i3 is still the only car you can buy under $100,000 with a carbon fiber monocoque layout. But the more important thing to remember about the i3 is that it now has its third different battery pack to rely on. And over the course of just about 6 years, its energy storage capacity more than doubled. All that was done without physically increasing the size of the huge battery pack in the floor.

And that seems to be the key to a truly electric future, a future that is so uncertain, most companies don’t really know what the perfect recipe to tackle it is.

At the moment, there are two different philosophies at play in the automotive industry. On the one hand, we have companies with dedicated EV platforms which allows them to build electric cars from the ground up with no limitations. These platforms would be adjustable and allow you to make the most out of the specifics of an electric car. From adjusting the design, to offering more space inside than a similarly sized internal combustion engine car. The problem with this approach is that it’s costly and you’re investing a lot in a platform that may not cater to all the needs your customers have.

Other car makers opted for a modular platform that can house both purely electric cars and internal combustion engine. That means they can build both types of cars on the same assembly line, with the same overall chassis design, allowing you to be very flexible and adapt to the customer demand. This is what BMW is doing and they call it ‘The Power of Choice’.

It’s a risky strategy that does come with a couple of shortcomings. For example, a car that was designed to use an internal combustion engine will have some issues with interior space, with weight distribution and even practicality once is converted to an EV. But that can be overlooked if the car in question is good enough for the customer.

Meet The iX3 – BMW’s First Electric SUV

That’s what the BMW iX3 is setting out to do. This is BMW’s first electric car since the i3 and uses a completely different recipe. This time, instead of giving it a bespoke platform just for itself, the new electric SUV is using the same platform as the regular X3.

Choosing the BMW X3 to be the first car offered as part of the ‘Power of Choice’ strategy wasn’t at random. The X3 is one of the best-selling BMWs and with this new choice, the range now includes all types of powertrains: from petrol to diesel engines, PHEV and, a full-on M car and now an EV. But what is the iX3 exactly? Nothing more than an electric X3 and you can see that from every angle.

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In terms of exterior design, the iX3 comes with very few changes compared to the regular X3, most of them aimed at making the car more efficient. Up front you’ll notice a new bumper with smaller air intakes to the sides that are now only used to streamline the air around the car and make it more aerodynamic, not to cool off anything. Then there’s the new set of grilles, nearly completely blocked out, with BMW i blue surrounds, looking rather good.

On the sides, the wheels are unique, being aerodynamically optimized, of course. You’ll also notice a BMW i badge on the front fenders and the same BMW i blue color used on the door sills. Round the back the similarities continue and you’ll only notice the bumper was swapped out with one that has no tailpipes but a more streamlined design with the same color used for accents here too.

No Major Revisions Inside

It’s the same story inside and it’s pretty clear BMW only wanted to give you the power to choose your powertrain while keeping everything else the same. The layout is exactly the same and you can’t really tell this is an electric car, unless you’re very observant. The gear selector has a blue stripe on it and there’s a plaque on the center console saying ‘BMW iX3’ but that’s about it. Oh, and every single BMW badge in or outside the car has a BMW i Blue surround. That’s yet another tell that this is not a regular X3.

Reach for the blue start/stop button and the car comes alive with a new sound, compared to everything else in the range. This sound was created by none other than Hans Zimmer and lets you know that the car is on. This is also when you notice the new instrument cluster dominated by a blue theme.

It looks exactly the same as a regular instrument cluster but on the right side, you don’t have a rev counter but a power meter, telling you how much of the engine’s resources you’re using at any given time. Look to the left hand side and you’ll also see that the fuel gauge has been replaced by a battery indicator, as one would expect.

Several Driving Modes

The BMW iX3 sets off in Eco Pro mode as standard. But it’s interesting to note that, unlike in PHEV models, you only get the standard three driving modes a regular BMW gets: Eco Pro, Comfort and Sport. That’s it, yet another sign that BMW wanted you to feel very familiar inside the iX3. And in Eco Pro mode the car is toned down. The throttle response is intentionally dulled, the audio feedback coming in through the speakers is also toned down and everything just laid back. The regenerative brakes are a working a bit more and you do recuperate more energy than in the other modes.

And driving the car is as familiar as you’d think if you’ve ever been behind the wheel of an X3. The driving position is just as high and the visibility almost perfect. You can get a good glimpse at what’s happening in all directions. However, the moment you hit a pothole or reach a rough patch of road you start noticing the differences and, as you might expect, the iX3 rides a bit harsher, understandably so too.

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It all starts with the heavy battery pack. You can store up to 80 kWh in the batteries hidden in the floor, out of which about 74 kWh can actually be used. That’s more than twice what you get in the i3 and on par with the iX3’s. And while BMW i managed to keep the shape and volume of these batteries in check, they are still heavy. How heavy, you may ask? Well, compared to a BMW X3 xDrive30i model, you have about 400 extra kilos with you all the time. The BMW iX3 tips the scale at 2.2 tons and that’s BMW X7 territory.

And you can feel it too. The suspension has been reinforced to cope with the extra weight but that made it a bit stiffer than in a regular X3. Don’t get me wrong, the iX3 is still offering a comfortable and supple ride, but it is harsher overall. Luckily, it’s still very well sound insulated so you won’t hear thumps and bumps inside the cabin too often.

All that weight also plays a part in the way the car handles. Switch it to Sport mode and it comes alive. Literally. The biggest change you feel, apart from the sharper pedal response, is the sound, as Sport mode has a different tune to it, signed by the same brilliant Hans Zimmer, that makes you feel like you’re driving a space ship.

Due to all that extra heft, the car’s center of gravity is lower than in an X3 but that still can’t make up for the extra work the suspension has to put in when you push the car hard. There’s a sense of understeer at times and you actually feel the underfloor pushing you towards the exterior of a corner when you push this car hard. Using your right foot can help, as the iX3 sends its power to the rear wheels alone, and you can oversteer, but the mechanical grip on the front axle is rather limited overall.

Speaking of weight, you should also know that due to its electric conversion, the iX3 lost the perfect weight distribution you’ll find in an X3. As such, BMW says 57 percent of the weight is distributed over the rear end of the car, while only 43 percent hangs over the front axle, explaining why the nose of the car feels so light. That’s because the electric motor, power electronics and transmission are arranged in a central housing for the first time. It’s a compact, single unit that’s meant to make the production process a lot more streamlined, an innovation coming in from the BMW i engineers.

Plenty Of Power

As for the motor, it delivers up to 286 HP and 400 Nm (295 lb-ft) of torque and uses no rare earths. The pedal response is impeccable, as you’d expect and the car feels lively when setting off. It’s definitely not back-breaking as you’d find the experience in other electric cars, but it’s no slouch either, reaching 100 km/h from standstill in 6.8 seconds, despite being rear-wheel drive only. You’ll be able to press on to a top speed of 180 km/h, but that will come with a range penalty.

Speaking of which, that is the biggest issue people have when it comes to electric cars: they don’t trust the official ratings. Understandably so too, since real-life results often differ by quite a lot. Well, during my time with the car I had the chance to test things out properly and the numbers are encouraging.

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Around town, the average energy consumption was 22 kWh/100 km. That means you could get a range of up to 336 kilometers with a full charge which is not bad for an electric SUV of this size. The average speed recorded during my range test around town was 22 km/h.

Outside the city limits, the numbers will vary depending on the speed, of course. At an average speed of 75 km/h I saw an average energy consumption of 19 kWh/100 km which would translate into a range of roughly 390 kilometers. On the highway, doing the speed limit of 130 km/h here in Europe, the numbers went up to 24 kWh/100 km, adding up to a range of about 300 kilometers. And there are a couple of mentions I have to make here.

First of all, the outside temperatures during these tests didn’t go over 10 degrees Celsius. It was rather cold and the X3 was equipped with winter tires, chipping away at this car’s efficiency. I also didn’t spare any kind of comfort, keeping the AC at 22 degrees Celsius and driving the car in Comfort mode most of the time. That’s because I wanted to see how the iX3 handles itself when you drive it like you would a regular X3 and I have to say I wasn’t disappointed.

Full Charge In Less Than 2 Hours

Furthermore, charging the car is rather fast. Sure, if you use a home wall socket, it can take up to 24 hours but, you can also use fast chargers for the iX3 and that’s exactly what I did. Using a 50-kW CCS charger, you can replenish your car in about 2 hours or, if you recharge it like I did, hooking it up at 40%, you can get up to 80% SOC in about 30-40 minutes. You can also use a 150-kW charger and that would get you up to 80 percent charge in just over 30 minutes, from 5%.

Therefore, I don’t think range is necessarily the issue with electric cars, but rather the charging time. You could make due with a car that has 100 kilometers of range, as long as you knew you can always pull over and recharge it in 5 minutes.

Cheaper Than The Competition

Overall, the BMW iX3 delivers on its promise of being an electric version of the X3. Pricing varies around the world but it’s one of its key strengths, as the iX3 is rather cheap compared to its premium rivals like the Mercedes-Benz EQC and Audi e-Tron. It also felt, to me, like it had more range and even though it’s slower and less powerful, for most people that won’t really matter, as they aren’t necessarily looking to be human cannonballs all the time.

For the time being, the iX3 looks like a very enticing choice over traditional petrol or diesel counterparts. Its decently priced and very well equipped for the money and has plenty of range for most users. It will also be considerably cheaper to use and run while also saving the planet. Will it be a sales hit though? That depends on such a wide variety of factors, it’s impossible to offer a clear answer at the moment but it has all it needs to do well, and that’s what matters right now.